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The Maharani of Mumbai and New York


A lonely tea-sipping queen is closely connected with the two cities.

People like to talk about the similarities between Mumbai and New York: their kinetic quality, their diversity, their mesmeric appeal to immigrants, even the fact that Manhattan and South Mumbai have almost the same dimensions. But few people know about the Queen who unites these two great cities.

Catherine, Queen of England between 1661 and 1685, was closely connected with the founding of both Mumbai and New York: she was the Portuguese princess who brought Mumbai as part of her dowry, and then, when New York was first colonised by the English, she was the queen after whom the borough of Queens was named. She would then go on to play a fascinating, though entirely accidental, role in the economy of India and the politics of the United States.

When Catherine was 23 and still, worryingly, unmarried, the diplomats of Portugal and England went into a year-long process of negotiations and finally decided that she would be married to Charles II, King of England. It was a marriage of great convenience for both sides. For Portugal it assured a powerful political and military ally against Spain. And for England - almost bankrupt, thanks to its recent Civil War and its new King's profligate ways - it provided a hefty royal dowry including, among other things, two million crowns in cash, trading rights to the East Indies and Brazil, and the strategic ports of Tangier and Mumbai. The latter was something the English had long yearned for;given the growing threat from the Dutch, they needed its unique natural harbour and the protection it offered against land attacks.

Salman Rushdie unkindly suggests that Catherine's dowry was inordinately high because she was so ugly. And it's probably true. Her husband, when he first saw her, is said to have cried out, "My God, they've brought me a bat to marry!" Apart from which, the fact that she'd been brought up in a nunnery must have made her a complete misfit in the notoriously bawdy and licentious English court.

Having acquired Mumbai from Portugal in 1661, the English found it too expensive to maintain, so they leased it to the East India Company. The Company appointed a new governor, the remarkably visionary Gerald Aungier, who began laying the foundations of a great city, even going to the extent of studying Christopher Wren's new plans for re-building London after the Great Fire of 1666, which he had managed to get his hands on. Thanks to the large numbers of merchants and artisans Aungier attracted to his city through the promise of liberty, tolerance and free trade, Bombay's population soon jumped from 10, 000 to 60, 000 - almost half the population of Shah Jahan's imperial capital at Delhi.

Uncannily, at almost exactly the same time, in 1664, halfway across the globe the English captured the colony of New Netherlands from the Dutch, and renamed it New York, after the Duke of York. The Duke then divided the territory into boroughs, the first two of which he very diplomatically named 'King's Borough' and 'Queen's Borough', after Charles II and Queen Catherine. King's Borough has since been re-named Brooklyn, but Queen's Borough still remains Queens. In fact, most people who fly into New York first set foot in Queens, as soon as they get off the aircraft at JFK airport.

Queen Catherine led an unhappy life in England. Unable to bear children, she looked on as her priapic husband fornicated his way around the country, inspiring the verse, "Restless he rolls from whore to whore/A merry monarch, scandalous and poor". Charles II ultimately fathered at least a dozen illegitimate children by various mistresses (one of whose descendants, interestingly, was Princess Diana). Humiliated, Catherine withdrew to her chambers and comforted herself by drinking tea, an indulgence she'd been introduced to as a princess in Portugal.

Tea was a refinement that Portuguese merchants had first brought back from China and Japan a century before. The drink's exotic-ness and high price had made it fashionable among European aristocracy, but it was still unknown to the boorish English, whose tastes did not go beyond ale. Catherine, whose famous dowry had included three chests of tea, made a habit of drinking a cup of tea each afternoon, in the Portuguese fashion. This soon became a fad in the royal court. And Catherine encouraged it by importing fine varieties of tea and patiently teaching the ladies of the court how to brew it.

The habit then percolated down through English society, and by the 1750s tea had become the national drink of England. The great demand for the beverage generated by this was met by the East India Company, who had the exclusive right to import tea from China. It was a hugely profitable business. But then, in 1832, the Company lost its monopoly on the China trade, and an alternative source of tea had to urgently be found. That was when the Company embarked on a major endeavour to grow tea in India, first in Assam, and when that proved successful, in Darjeeling, and in other parts of the country.
Thus the fad that Queen Catherine began has had an enormous impact on India's economy, creating the only industry in which India has retained a global leadership position for over 150 years. If our tea industry today has a turnover of Rs 20, 000 crore, is India's second largest employer, and accounts for 11 per cent of the global tea trade, we ultimately have Queen Catherine to thank for it.

If Catherine played an inadvertent role in India's economy, she also played an equally unwitting, but important, role in American politics. By the mid-18 th century, the tea-drinking habit she inspired had spread to England's colonies. That was when the British Parliament decided to levy a new tax on tea in America. This outraged the American colonists, who were committed to the principle of "no taxation without representation".

Things came to a head in 1773, when English ships carrying consignments of the taxed tea were turned back from the American ports by the colonists. The only exception was Boston, where the tough English governor landed three tea ships. A face-off ensued. One evening a group of American colonists, dressed symbolically as Mohawk Indians, boarded the English ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the sea. This incident, the Boston Tea Party, was a trigger for the process that culminated, three years later, in the declaration of American independence, and the momentous new idea of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
And behind all this, in some elliptical way, was a sad, lonely, tea-sipping English queen, now long forgotten. The borough of Queens, New York, tried to commemorate her some years ago with a 5-storey high bronze statue facing the Statue of Liberty, but the move was blocked by activists. Mumbai obviously wouldn't want her either;it wants a 150-foot monolith of Shivaji. Perhaps a company like Lipton - or Tetley, with its Tata connection - might consider putting up a small statue of Catherine somewhere, by way of thanksgiving, if nothing else.

The writer is an advertising professional.

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